Government pledge on drugs law fails to convince staff on immunity

Care agencies and their staff could be prosecuted for looking after
active drug abusers despite government assurances that their work
falls outside its new legislation aimed at shutting crack houses.

In March, homelessness charities and other voluntary organisations
heaved a collective sigh of relief when the Home Office shelved
reforms to section 8(d) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The government had wanted to amend the section to make it easier to
close crack houses. But the proposals were withdrawn after protests
from care agencies. They said the guidance was so vague it would
have created a criminal offence for care agencies and their staff
of knowingly permitting the use of all controlled drugs in premises
where recovering drug abusers were looked after. Under the 1971
act, agencies are only obliged to prevent the supply of all
controlled drugs and the use of cannabis.

Shelving the guidance, the Home Office said it would rely on the
new Antisocial Behaviour Bill for its clampdown on crack houses and
that the legislation would spell out that care agencies and their
staff would be exempt from prosecution.

But it has now become clear that the bill, which has made it
through the Commons and is due to receive its second reading in the
House of Lords next week, fails to offer any such exemptions.

Attempts by Liberal Democrat MPs in the Commons to bring in a
blanket exemption clause for care agencies were rejected at the
committee stage at the end of June.

Junior Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth told the committee that
introducing a blanket exemption would “leave the law open to
exploitation by unscrupulous people” who either claim to be
providing services to help drug abusers or who choose to work
“outside the law” in legitimate agencies.

The Home Office now insists that no blanket exemption for care
agencies is needed because there is an understanding that the bill
is not aimed at staff or agencies that work with drug abusers.

At the same time, it says that it has not backed down on amending
section 8(d) of the Misuse of Drugs Act. A spokesperson says: “The
amendment will remain on the statute books and we will look at it
again. We have not backed down on section 8(d).”

So where does this leave care agencies and their staff who are
concerned about prosecution?

One person in a position to answer is Ruth Wyner. The
Cambridgeshire care worker was jailed for five years in 1999 along
with co-worker John Brock after being prosecuted under section 8 of
the Misuse of Drugs Act for knowingly allowing drug dealers to
supply heroin at Wintercomfort, a drop-in centre for homeless
people. She was released seven months into the sentence.

Wyner says that care workers are still at risk from prosecution if
section 8 is not reformed.

“The Home Office guidance around section 8(d) clarified that the
act was unworkable,” she says. “The government really couldn’t do
anything but drop the guidance after it appeared that a lot of
people who were looking after drug addicts would be breaking the

“What we are left with is a section 8 which doesn’t make any sense.
What I want to see happen is the word ‘wilfully’ inserted into it
rather than the existing word ‘knowingly’ so that it shows there is
intent to allow it to happen, but the government rejected

She says that currently the law is protecting care agencies and
their staff because of the publicity around her case. She is
concerned that if there is a bad relationship between an agency and
the local police, staff could still be in trouble.

Voluntary umbrella organisation Homeless Link, which represents 700
homelessness agencies, is at the forefront of the campaign against
the section 8 guidance and has watched the Antisocial Behaviour
Bill’s passage through parliament.

Its chief executive, Liz Pritchard, says the campaign against
section 8(d) is on hold until the Antisocial Behaviour Bill becomes
law and agencies can judge how it is being implemented.

“My reading of the Antisocial Behaviour Bill is that it isn’t going
to catch homeless agencies and others dealing with drug users in
the same way that section 8(d) does – it will not make it a
criminal offence to run a property where drugs are being used,” she

“If the amendment to section 8(d) had been introduced, we would not
have been able to continue working with active drug addicts without
informing the police – it would have criminalised agencies and
people working with agencies.”

She says that it would be better if the Home Office took the
amendment out completely but that was not going to happen. But the
fact that the Home Office is not enacting the amendment at this
stage was something positive. “The campaign has not gone away but
the impending catastrophic mistake has not happened and is on

The charity is confident that its members and staff will not be
liable to prosecution for treating drug misusers because the
Antisocial Behaviour Bill is aimed at closing premises and does
not, unlike section 8(d), focus on managers or staff of premises.
The bill also includes the conditional clause that closure can only
go ahead if the premises creates “disorder or serious nuisance to
members of the public”.

Pritchard says: “This is an important clause because it means
closure is also linked to serious nuisance and disorder. We will
have to see how that is interpreted by the courts and hope that it
isn’t interpreted too widely and used to cause trouble for care
agencies by neighbours who don’t want the agencies in their

“Once we see what happens when the Antisocial Behaviour Bill
becomes law, we will all then get together again and see how we
want to move forward on this.”

Drugscope, a charity that represents treatment agencies, and has
1,100 members, helped the government when it was looking at drawing
up legislation to close down crack houses.

The charity is monitoring the progress of the Antisocial Behaviour
Bill and the future of section 8(d). The charity is also watching
the proposals in the new Criminal Justice Bill, which has reached
committee stage in the House of Lords. This bill recommends tougher
sentences for drug dealing and is proposing a 14-year tariff for
dealing or intent to deal in class C drugs, which will soon include
cannabis as well as tranquillisers. The maximum sentence at the
moment is five years.

A charity spokesperson says: “We are watching closely how all these
attempts to tighten the law affect social care agencies.

“We are concerned that section 8(d), as it stands, could be used
again, especially in light of the increasing sentencing which is
being proposed in the Criminal Justice Bill. We support the
Antisocial Behaviour Bill but again we feel it needs to be

Homelessness charity St Mungo’s also has reservations about the
legislation. Head of hostels and services David Devoy says: “We
understand the intention is the closure of crack houses and we
welcome this.

“However, we do have concerns about the potential vulnerability of
local arrangements and we would therefore be looking for
reassurance that our work to keep engaging with people with
substance misuse is not undermined.” CC

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